A Big Week for Climate Change — But Is It Enough?

This week has been one of the most important for climate change in recent history. On Sunday, I was one of nearly 400,000 people participating in the People’s Climate March in New York City — the largest-ever climate change rally. In 161 other countries, thousands more gathered in public spaces to demand global action.

people's climate march, New York City

A few of the nearly 400,000 participants in the People’s Climate March, held last Sunday in New York City. (© Shyla Raghav)

The march’s timing was particularly significant; it was held to draw attention to Tuesday’s United Nations Climate Summit. Convened by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the summit encouraged the more than 125 heads of state, corporate leaders and civil society representatives in attendance to put forth ambitious commitments of climate change action.

The march was deeply personal for most attendees. Messages ranged from critiques of global capitalism to promoting meat-free diets. For me, it demonstrated that climate change really isn’t just an environmental problem anymore. There is now a pervasive, deeper understanding that climate change is a development, societal and even moral issue.

Having dedicated my career to working on climate change, it was inspiring to see that the issues that concern me are not confined to my profession. To me, the People’s Climate March and Climate Summit reinforced that climate change is an issue that we share as a global community, and one for which we must find solutions together.

To reach that collective goal, for the last several years, countries have been attempting to craft an international agreement that will outline our plan of action. In 2011, countries decided on a 2015 deadline to finalize this agreement, which will go into effect in 2021.

As they define the structure and terms of this agreement, however, progress has been slow; current commitments fall far below what the science suggests is required to limit warming. The key question is: Will the commitments made at Tuesday’s summit get us where we need to be?

Substantial progress was made, with some key commitments from major players. Most countries’ commitments concerned commitments toward renewable energy targets. Many countries also joined forces for bilateral or multilateral cooperation. For example, Norway and Liberia formed a partnership to halt deforestation, which will help fulfill the goals of the New York Declaration on Forests that many governments and organizations signed on to.

Further, the two largest greenhouse gas emitters, the United States and China, emphasized their commitment to a strong 2015 agreement. The U.S. indicated a reduction target would be announced in early 2015, and China pledged support for a forthcoming peak in emissions, after which point they will begin to decline.

Cities banded together to reduce emissions through the Compact of Mayors Initiative. Numerous corporations like IKEA committed to gradually shift toward 100% renewable energy. In addition, many countries like France, which committed US$ 1 billion for the Green Climate Fund, stepped in to pledge resources to support action on climate change.

The range of participants in the summit is proof that people are catching on — climate change is a global problem in which everyone has a part to play.

Moving forward, the key issue will be how these governments, companies, cities and organizations will be held accountable for their commitments. Coordination among all of the pledges will be critical to their efficacy and to ensure that their collective impact is adequate. It is expected, however, that these commitments will feed into ongoing negotiations.

The next major climate change conference (COP 20) is in December in Lima, Peru. This gathering will set the stage for the 2015 conference in Paris, at which the climate agreement is due.

With just over a year until the Paris meeting, negotiating time is limited. CI will continue to work with companies, governments and other civil society partners to demonstrate and amplify the successes we’ve witnessed in the field. Our work with a wide range of partners has shown that there’s growing awareness and willingness to work on climate change — and this week leaves me more optimistic than ever.

Shyla Raghav is CI’s senior manager for climate adaptation policy. The entire list of commitments made at the summit can be found online.